Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Halloween Special!

Christopher Lee, being Dracula.

October 31st, so I thought some intelligent stuff on horror might be appropriate. Please don't have bad dreams after reading it!

Flesh and blood: From a figure of menace and parody to a New York junkie, Dracula has had many reincarnations. But it was the 1958 film starring Christopher Lee that first made him sexy
Matthew Sweet, The Guardian, Saturday October 27, 2007

It's an autumn night in the 19th century. Halloween, possibly. Midnight, certainly. Old Gerda, with a reckless indulgence common to maidservants in horror films, has been persuaded to remove sheaves of frizzy garlic flowers from Lucy Holmwood's boudoir. Now the door is shut, the French windows are wide open to the garden, and Lucy is lying back on the four-poster, heaving under powder-blue chiffon, waiting for her demon lover to appear in that gaping space at the back of the shot. Nothing's there. No river of dry ice, no flapping bat prop - just brown leaves billowing, and the thrash-orchestral score kicking at us to pay attention. And suddenly - without the benefit of any effect that could be considered remotely special - there's Christopher Lee in a floor-length cape. All 6ft 4in of him, in a profession populated by tiny little Bogardes and Todds and Millses. His eyes are picked out with a key light by which Joan Crawford would have felt flattered. He strides into the room, and we all know what's coming next - the sex business with the fangs. Count Dracula needs blood - the undead have gotta live - but we know that there's more to it than that. But how do we know?

Fifty years ago, in a cramped studio on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire, the director Terence Fisher called the shots on the Hammer version of Dracula. The original print has just been restored by the British Film Institute and is now ready to manifest itself again. Its colour palette, which always looked crude and garish on television, is now a rich mix of autumnal browns and priestly purples. Only the fake blood - which gathers inside Christopher Lee's vampire contact lenses, spurts from staked hearts and spatters inexplicably from the air - reads as improperly, unnaturally bright, like Kathleen Byron's tarty lipstick in Black Narcissus
Fisher's Dracula was shot in 25 days at a cost of £81,413. For Hammer, this was lavish. Some directors had to manage on a fifth of that. The company was still reeling from the success of The Curse of Frankenstein, a shocked-up version of the Mary Shelley story with a focus on scalpel edges, jellied brains and charnel-house comedy. Bram Stoker's Dracula was next on the slab, and the publicity dope let the audience in on the angle. The posters were in black and white, with a trickle of red ink superimposed at the corners of Christopher Lee's mouth. He was "the terrifying lover who died ... yet lived!" Every night, the tagline screamed, "he rises from his coffin-bed - silently to seek the soft flesh, the warm blood he needs to keep himself alive".

In 1958, that wasn't the obvious way to sell a vampire. It certainly wasn't obvious to the marketing department of Universal-International, which handled the film in the States. When the film opened in America, snitty letters and telegrams ping-ponged over the Atlantic. "I don't like the advertising I have seen put out by your New York office which is along the lines of the old Dracula pictures with Bela Lugosi," complained Michael Carreras, the film's executive producer. "Our Dracula is handsome and sexy ... His victims are young attractive women. The campaign in London is on horror sex lines and I would be grateful if you would re-examine." They did.

Half a century later, the link between eroticism and vampirism has been so thoroughly naturalised that it would be impossible to make the same mistake. For most readers, meeting the title character of Bram Stoker's book is usually as much of a surprise as it is for Jonathan Harker, the Victorian estate agent who gets it in the neck in the story's first strophe. In his diary, Harker notes that the Count is "a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache". He has "peculiarly arched nostrils" and a "lofty domed forehead". The diary records that Dracula's "eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion". Hammer's Lucy Holmwood wouldn't have opened her French windows for this rancid specimen; she'd have kicked him out of bed.

In 1958, Fisher, Carreras and Lee were all tussling with Dracula's image problem: how to recuperate the vampire as a figure of menace, how to reclaim him from parody. Just six years before, Bela Lugosi had come to Britain, crooked-backed and methadone-fuddled, to lurch out of his coffin twice nightly in a touring stage version of the Stoker story. His co-star was an unreliable mechanical bat. The show did respectable business, but it certainly wasn't the comeback for which Lugosi had hoped. When the run came to an end, the actor remained in the country to go through his cackle-and-grimace act as the villain of a cheap little comedy called Mother Riley Meets the Vampire. Arthur Lucan was the star - a tottering music-hall turn who dragged up as an Irish washerwoman and shrieked things like, "I am a woman and I defy you to prove it!" And between hits of opioid, administered by his wife Lillian, Lugosi sent a lumbering robot to force-feed Mother Riley "liver ... with the blood running out of it" for breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea and elevenses. It'd be safe to say that nobody in the audience was aroused.

When he wore the cape for the first time, Lugosi was a looker. He was also a Hungarian and a romantic and a political revolutionary. In 1919, he'd been a founding member of the actors' union established during the brief life of Bela Kun's Hungarian Soviet Republic. Though he'd been resident in America for more than a decade when Universal invited him to be fitted for a pair of vampire dentures, Lugosi's English was so poor that he learned the part phonetically. But the oddness of his inflection patterns is what made his Dracula one of the great screen performances. Lugosi sang his dialogue as if it were an aria from an Erkel Ferenc opera. When he stands in a cobweb-smothered castle and implores his Jonathan Harker to listen to the music of the "cheeldreen of the naaight", you believe that he considers wolf howls to be a species of coloratura - and that he's singing from the same score sheet. "I ... am ... Draa-cu-laaa!" he yodels. "I bid you ... wel-come!"

Christopher Lee, by comparison, is telegraphically brisk. "I am Dracula and I welcome you to my house." He has only 13 lines in the entire picture, and they are all delivered just as snappily. Where Lugosi postures and glides, Lee is rough and muscular. He descends the staircase of his castle at such a lick that he might as well have slid down the curlicued banister. He yanks his vampire bride across the marble floor of the castle with amazing ferocity. (If it had not been for the censor, who blue-pencilled the notion at the script stage, she would have been hurled by the hair.) His face-off with his nemesis, the vampire-staker Professor Van Helsing - played with razor seriousness by Peter Cushing - isn't an altercation between gentlemen, it's a bar-room brawl, resolved when Cushing slams a pair of candlesticks together and uses the cruciform shadow to drive the vampire into a killing cascade of sunbeams. Dracula falls to pieces, reduced to dust and bones. And at this moment we return to Arthur and Mina - the husband and wife whose marriage we've just seen threatened by vampiric adultery - and we're reminded what brought Dracula to their house in the first place. Soft flesh. Warm blood. Those things that the poster insisted were a vampire's principal reasons for getting out of his coffin-bed.

There's an innovation in Jimmy Sangster's screenplay that helps to conjure this new, sexualised version of Dracula into being: he sets the story in the Victorian past. Like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula took a while to be reconfigured in the popular imagination as a historical character. Lugosi's career as a vampire had been conducted almost entirely in contemporary 20th-century settings - a Hollywood version of present-day London in the 1931 Dracula, the same city in wartime in The Return of the Vampire, made in 1944. Returning the events of the story to the period of its writing turned it into a fight between Victorians and vampires. It made Dracula into the enemy of some outmoded form of sexual morality. And for an audience in the late 1950s, that was a battle worth watching. "Sex and death in equal proportions," writes Hammerologist Sinclair McKay, "and particularly barely repressed sexuality in a Victorian setting, was the real winning formula."

Spool back six years, and you'll find Terence Fisher worrying at similar themes. Right at the beginning of his career with Hammer, he made The Last Page, a sleazy little B-flick about blackmail in a bookshop in a bomb-scarred patch of Holborn. Its star was Diana Dors, who, to an audience in 1952, meant one thing: a specifically postwar kind of voracious sexuality. She was the sort of girl over whom George Orwell had fretted in his essay "Decline of the English Murder" - the sort who'd spent too much time at the Locarno with a GI on each arm, and had learned more from them than how to blow bubblegum and speak with a transatlantic twang. In The Last Page, Dors is a bookshop assistant who's full of desires that the men of postwar Britain seem unable to meet. She wants to go to clubs, and drink gin and orange, and eat big steaks with plenty of onions. So she claims that her boss has tried to rape her, and pumps him for a fat envelope of used oncers. The film suggests that, in postwar Britain, you didn't get anything nice without doing something dirty. The origins of Dors's corruption seem to lie somewhere across the Atlantic. The women in Hammer's Dracula are visited from the east, rather than the west. But one bite from Christopher Lee, and they suddenly know what it is to have a good time - and they're making eyes like Diana Dors on the prowl.

And this is the reason why Dracula keeps haunting the cinema: he'll be anything you desire. In 1974, Paul Morrissey turned him into a New York blood-junkie, in a film backed by Andy Warhol. In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola turned him into a personification of fears about the exchange of bodily fluids - just at the point when Aids was all over the media. Hammer, though, gave him his most successful make-over, as a harbinger of the permissive society, which was already looming on the horizon when Christopher Lee began raiding women's bedrooms.

Hammer's most powerful influence, however, has probably been on English departments in British and American universities. Dracula studies first emerged as a serious discipline in the late 1960s, and soon established the parameters of its interest. As the critic Robert Mighall has argued in his book Mapping History's Nightmares, this kind of Freud-slaked, programmatically anti-Victorian criticism proposed that "the vampire is monstrous not because it is a supernatural being which threatens to suck the protagonists' blood and damn their souls, but because at some 'deeper level' it symbolises an erotic threat". So, Mighall contends, a book that contains no obvious allusions to sex - apart from one use of the word "voluptuous" - has been used to prove how much energy the Victorians invested in their programme to police sex into silence. And the more the book refuses to cough up an explicit coupling between its title character and the erotic impulse, the more it is used as evidence for the prissy severity of the culture that produced it. In the words of one critic, Dracula represents "the great submerged force of Victorian libido breaking out to punish the repressive society which had imprisoned it". Lee's performance convinced a generation of scholars that Dracula was a book about sex, and not about vampires.

When those words were published in the early 1970s, Christopher Lee was having one last hurrah in the cloak and fangs. Hammer, looking for new ways to revive flagging public interest in fanged Transylvanians, had transplanted Dracula to the fag end of swinging London, where he hung out with a gang of hippie bikers - slaves of the dark side, of pot and of their taste in afghan casualwear. The provisional title for one of these pictures was Dracula is Dead and Well and Living in London. Twentieth-century London, of course. The place where he had really been born.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Weighty issues (sorry, that is such a bad pun)

Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona: perhaps showing the pitfalls of giving up regular exercise?

I'm someone who worries that I consume too much food and drink, often of the wrong sort. When I put on weight it goes to my stomach first. My stomach is the last part of my body to lose weight. However, at the same time I've been able to fit easily (ie I need a belt) to fit into a 34 inch pair of trousers for around 15 years or so. I also try to exercise and walk as much as possible. Reading the piece below, I wondered, what is it all for?

We can't work it out: We all know exercise helps you lose weight. But does it? There is almost no scientific evidence to support the orthodoxy. Indeed, it could even do the exact opposite... Gary Taubes weighs up the facts and takes a controversial look at why the gym is not going to fix it
The Observer, Sunday October 28, 2007

Let us begin with a short quiz: a few questions to ponder during the 30 (or 60 or 90) minutes a day you spend burning off excess calories at the gym, or perhaps while feeling guilty because you're not so engaged. If lean people are more physically active than fat people - one fact in the often-murky science of weight control that's been established beyond reasonable doubt - does that mean that working out will make a fat person lean? Does it mean that sitting around will make a lean person fat? How about a mathematical variation on these questions? Let's say we go to the gym and burn off 3,500 calories every week - that's 700 calories a session, five times a week. Since a pound of fat is equivalent to 3,500 calories, does that mean we'll be a pound slimmer for every week we exercise? And will we continue to slim down at this pace for as long as we continue to exercise?

For most of us, fear of flab is the reason we exercise, the motivation that drives us to the gym. It's also why public-health authorities have taken to encouraging ever more exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle. If we're fat or fatter than ideal, we work out. Burn calories. Expend energy. Still fat? Burn more. The dietary guidelines of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), for instance, now recommend we engage in up to 60 minutes daily of 'moderate to vigorous intensity' physical activity just to maintain weight - that is, keep us from fattening further. Considering the ubiquity of the message, the hold it has on our lives, and the elegant simplicity of the notion - burn calories, lose weight - wouldn't it be nice to believe it were true? The catch is that science suggests it's not, and so the answer to all of the above quiz questions is 'no'.

Just last month, the American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine published joint guidelines for physical activity and health. They suggested that 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week is necessary to 'promote and maintain health'. What they didn't say, though, was that more physical activity will lead us to lose weight. The best they could say about the relationship between fat and exercise was this: 'It is reasonable to assume that persons with relatively high daily energy expenditures would be less likely to gain weight over time compared with those who have low energy expenditures. So far, data to support this hypothesis is not particularly compelling.' In other words, despite half a century of efforts to prove otherwise, scientists still can't say exercise will help keep the pounds off.

The 30 minutes recommended is a departure from the recent guidelines of other organisations - the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies and the International Association for the Study of Obesity - both of which have recommended we exercise for up to 60 minutes a day to avoid what the USDA calls 'unhealthy weight gain'. But the reason for this 60-minute recommendation is precisely that so little evidence exists to support the notion that exercising less has any effect.

The report that these experts cite most often as grounds for their assessments was published in 2000 by two Finnish researchers who surveyed all the relevant research on exercise and weight from the previous 20 years. Yet the Finnish report, the most scientifically rigorous review of the evidence to date, can hardly be said to have cleared the matter up. When the Finnish investigators looked at the results of the dozen best-constructed experimental trials that addressed weight maintenance - that is, successful dieters who were trying to keep off the pounds they had shed - they found that everyone regains weight. And depending on the type of trial, exercise would either decrease the rate of that gain (by 3.2oz per month) or increase its rate (by 1.8oz). As the Finns themselves concluded, the relationship between exercise and weight is 'more complex' than they might otherwise have imagined.

This is not to say that there aren't excellent reasons to be physically active. We might just enjoy exercise. We may increase our overall fitness; we may live longer, perhaps by reducing our risk of heart disease or diabetes; we'll probably feel better about ourselves. But there's no reason to think we will lose any significant amount of weight, and little reason to think we will prevent ourselves from gaining it.

The one thing that might be said with certainty about exercise is that it tends to make us hungry. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. Burn more calories and the odds are very good that we'll consume more as well. And this simple fact alone might explain both the scientific evidence and a nation's worth of sorely disappointing anecdotal experience.

It's difficult to get health authorities to talk about the disconnection between their official recommendations and the scientific evidence that underlies it because they want to encourage us to exercise, even if their primary reason for doing so is highly debatable. Steve Blair, for instance, a University of South Carolina exercise scientist, says he was 'short, fat, and bald' when he started running in his thirties and he is short, fatter and balder now, at age 68. In the intervening years, he estimates, he has run close to 80,000 miles and gained about 30lb.

When I asked Blair whether he thought he might be leaner had he run even more, he had to think about it. 'I don't see how I could have been more active,' he said. 'Thirty years ago, I was running 50 miles a week. I had no time to do more. But if I could have gone out over the last couple of decades for two to three hours a day, maybe I would not have gained this weight.'

And maybe he would have anyway. There is little reason to believe the amount he runs makes any difference. Nonetheless, Blair personally believes he would be fatter still if he hadn't been running. Why?

There was a time when virtually no one believed exercise would help a person lose weight. Until the Sixties, clinicians who treated obese and overweight patients dismissed the notion as naive. When Russell Wilder, an obesity and diabetes specialist at the Mayo Clinic, lectured on obesity in 1932, he said his fat patients tended to lose more weight with bed rest, 'while unusually strenuous physical exercise slows the rate of loss'.

The problem, as he and his contemporaries saw it, is that light exercise burns an insignificant number of calories - amounts that are undone by comparatively effortless changes in diet. In 1942, Louis Newburgh of the University of Michigan calculated that a 17st man expends only three calories climbing a flight of stairs - the equivalent of depriving himself of a quarter of a teaspoon of sugar or 100th of an ounce of butter. 'He will have to climb 20 flights of stairs to rid himself of the energy contained in one slice of bread,' Newburgh observed. So why not skip the stairs, skip the bread, and call it a day?

More-strenuous exercise, these physicians argued, doesn't help matters, because it works up an appetite. 'Vigorous muscle exercise usually results in immediate demand for a large meal,' noted Hugo Rony in his 1940 textbook Obesity and Leanness. 'Consistently high or low energy expenditures result in consistently high or low levels of appetite. Thus men doing heavy physical work spontaneously eat more than men engaged in sedentary occupations. Statistics show the average daily caloric intake of lumberjacks is more than 5,000 calories, while that of tailors is only 2,500 calories. Persons who change their occupation from light to heavy work or vice versa soon develop corresponding changes in their appetite.' If a tailor becomes a lumberjack, and by doing so takes to eating like one, why assume the same won't happen, albeit on a lesser scale, to an overweight tailor who decides to work out like a lumberjack for an hour a day?

Credit for why we came to believe otherwise goes to one man, Jean Mayer, who began his career at Harvard in the early Fifties and went on to become the most influential nutritionist in United States. As an authority on human-weight regulation, Mayer was among the very first of a new breed, a type that has since come to dominate the field. His predecessors - Wilder, Rony, Newburgh and others - had all been physicians who worked closely with obese and overweight patients. Mayer was not. His training was in physiological chemistry; he had obtained a doctorate at Yale with a dissertation on the interrelationship of vitamins A and C in rats. In the ensuing decades, he would publish hundreds of papers on different aspects of nutrition, including why we get fat, but he never had to reduce obese patients as part of his clinical obligation, and so his hypotheses were less fettered by anecdotal or real-life experience.

As early as 1953, after just a few years of research on laboratory mice, Mayer began extolling the virtues of exercise for weight control. By 1959, the New York Times was crediting him with having 'debunked the popular theories' that exercise played little role in weight control. Mayer knew the obese often eat no more than the lean and occasionally even less. This seemed to exclude gluttony as a cause of their weight gain, which meant that these fat people had to be less physically active. Otherwise, how could they take in more calories than they expend and so become fat?

Through the Sixties, Mayer documented the relationship between inactivity and the overweight. He noted that fat high-school girls ate 'several hundred calories less' than lean classmates. 'The laws of thermodynamics were, however, not flouted by this finding,' he wrote, because the obese girls expended less energy than the lean. They were much less active; they spent four times as many hours watching television. Mayer also studied infants. 'The striking phenomenon is that the fatter babies were quiet, placid babies that had moderate intake,' Mayer reported, 'whereas the babies who had the highest intake tended to be very thin babies, cried a lot, moved a lot, and became very tense.' Thus, Mayer concluded, 'some individuals are born very quiet, inactive, and placid and with moderate intake get fat, and some individuals from the very beginning are very active and do not get particularly fat even with high intakes'.

It was Mayer who pioneered the now ubiquitous practice of implicating sedentary living as the 'most important factor' leading to obesity and the chronic diseases that accompany it. Modern people, said Mayer, were inert compared with their ancestors, who were 'constantly engaged in hard physical labour'. Every modern convenience, by this logic, from power windows to the electric toothbrush, only serves to minimise the calories we expend. 'The development of obesity,' Mayer wrote in 1968, 'is to a large extent the result of the lack of foresight of a civilisation which spends billions annually on cars, but is unwilling to include a swimming pool and tennis courts in the plans of every school.'

Mayer's hypothesis always had shortcomings, but they were ignored for the same reasons they still are - who wants to openly question the idea that physical activity is a panacea? The first issue is a logical one: the conclusion that the fatter we are, the more sedentary we're likely to be is actually a correlation - it tells us nothing about what is cause and what is effect. 'It is a common observation,' noted Rony in 1941, 'that many obese persons are lazy, ie they show decreased impulse to muscle activity. This may be, in part, an effect that excess weight would have on the activity impulse of any normal person.' Equally possible is that obesity and physical inactivity are both symptoms of the same underlying cause.

This logical problem was then obscured by Mayer's all-out attack on the role of hunger. Mayer acknowledged exercise could make us hungrier, but he said it wasn't necessarily the case. This was the heart of Mayer's message - a purported loophole in the relationship between appetite and physical activity. 'If exercise is decreased below a certain point, food intake no longer decreases,' said Mayer. 'In other words, walking 30 minutes a day may be equivalent to four slices of bread, but if you don't walk the half-hour, you still want to eat the four slices.'

Mayer based this conclusion on two (and only two) of his own studies from the mid-Fifties. The first purported to demonstrate that laboratory rats exercised for a few hours every day will eat less than rats that don't exercise at all. But this was never replicated. In more recent experiments, the more rats run the more rats eat; weight remains unchanged. And when rats are retired from these exercise programmes, they eat more than ever and gain weight with age more rapidly than rats that were allowed to remain sedentary. With hamsters and gerbils, exercise increases body weight and body-fat percentage. So exercising makes these particular rodents fatter, not leaner.

Mayer's second study was an assessment of the diet, physical activity and weights of workers and merchants at a mill in West Bengal, India. This article is still commonly cited as perhaps the only existing evidence that physical activity and appetite do not necessarily go hand in hand. But it, too, has never been replicated, despite (or perhaps because of) a half-century of improvements in methods of assessing diet and energy expenditure in humans.It helped that Mayer promoted his pro-exercise message with a fervour akin to a moral crusade.

Our culture of physical exercise began only in the late Sixties, coinciding with Mayer's crusade, which explains why our parents might not have been quite so devoted to the idea of spending their leisure time perspiring profusely. In 1977, the New York Times was covering the 'exercise explosion' that had come about because the conventional wisdom of the Sixties that exercise was 'bad for you' had been transformed into the 'new conventional wisdom - that strenuous exercise is good for you'. When the Washington Post estimated in 1980 that 100m Americans were partaking in the 'new fitness revolution' - coincident with the start of the current obesity epidemic - it also noted that most of them 'would have been derided as "health nuts"' only a decade earlier.

Meanwhile, the evidence simply never came around to support Mayer's hypothesis, even though our beliefs did. My favourite study of the effect of physical activity on weight loss was published in 1989 by a team of Danish researchers. Over the course of 18 months the Danes trained non-athletes to run a marathon. At the end of this training period, the 18 men in the study had lost an average of 5lb of body fat. As for the nine women subjects, the Danes reported, 'no change in body composition was observed'. That same year, F Xavier Pi-Sunyer reviewed the studies on exercise and weight, and his conclusion was identical to that of the Finnish review's 11 years later: 'Decreases, increases, and no changes in body weight and body composition have been observed,' Pi-Sunyer reported.

Granted, all this still doesn't explain why we bought into Mayer's idea that we could exercise more and not compensate by eating more. One simple reason is that the health reporters bought it, and we were reading their articles, not the research literature itself. In 1977, for instance, the National Institutes of Health hosted its second conference on obesity and weight control. 'The importance of exercise in weight control is less than might be believed,' the assembled experts concluded, 'because increases in energy expenditure due to exercise also tend to increase food consumption, and it is not possible to predict whether the increased caloric output will be outweighed by the greater food intake.' That same year, the New York Times Magazine reported that there was 'now strong evidence that regular exercise can and does result in substantial and - so long as the exercise is continued - permanent weight loss'.

By 1990, a year after Pi-Sunyer's pessimistic assessment of the evidence, Newsweek was declaring exercise an 'essential' element of any weight-loss programme, and the Times had stated that on those infrequent occasions 'when exercise isn't enough' to lose weight, 'you must also make sure you don't overeat'.

As for the authorities themselves, the primary factor fuelling their belief in the weight-maintaining benefits of exercise was their natural reluctance to acknowledge otherwise. Although one couldn't help but be 'underwhelmed by' the evidence, as Mayer's student Judith Stern, a nutritionist, wrote in 1986, it would be 'shortsighted' to say that exercise was ineffective because it meant ignoring the possible contributions of exercise to the prevention of obesity and to the maintenance of weight loss that might be induced by diet. These, of course, had never been demonstrated either, but they hadn't been ruled out. This faith-based philosophy came to dominate scientific discussions on exercise and weight, but it couldn't be reconciled with the simple notion that appetite and calories consumed will increase with an increase in physical activity. Hence, the idea of working up an appetite was jettisoned. Clinicians, researchers, exercise physiologists, even personal trainers at the local gym took to thinking and talking about hunger as though it were a phenomenon exclusive to the brain, a question of willpower (whatever that is), not the natural consequence of a body trying to replenish itself with energy.

Ultimately, the relationship between physical activity and fatness comes down to the question of cause and effect. Is Lance Armstrong excessively lean because he burns off a few thousand calories a day cycling, or is he driven to expend that energy because his body is constitutionally set against storing calories as fat? If his fat tissue is resistant to accumulating calories, his body has little choice but to burn them as quickly as possible: what Rony and his contemporaries called the 'activity impulse' - a physiological drive, not a conscious one. His body is telling him to get on his bike and ride, not his mind. Those of us who run to fight fat would have the opposite problem. Our fat tissue wants to store calories, leaving our muscles with a relative dearth of energy to burn. It's not willpower we lack, but fuel.

For the past 60 years, researchers studying obesity and weight regulation have insisted on treating the human body as a thermodynamic black box: calories go in one side, they come out the other, and the difference (calories in minus calories out) ends up as either more or less fat. The fat tissue, in this thermodynamic model, has nothing to say in the matter. Thus the official recommendations to eat less and exercise more and assuredly you'll get thinner. (Or at least not fatter.) And in the strict sense this is true - you can starve a human, or a rat, and they will indeed lose weight - but that misses the point. Humans, rats and all living organisms are ruled by biology, not thermodynamics. When we deprive ourselves of food, we get hungry. When we push ourselves physically, we get tired.

Our bodies, like all living organisms, have evolved a fantastically complex web of feedback loops. These physiological mechanisms serve fundamentally to work against the inevitable pull of thermodynamics (which is entropy, aka death) and so make life possible. The necessary condition of life, as the great French physiologist Claude Bernard noted 140 years ago, is to keep the internal environment of an organism stable and conducive to life, regardless of what's happening on the outside. This is what the Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, in the Thirties, called homeostasis - or the 'wisdom of the body', as he put it. 'Somehow the unstable stuff of which we are composed,' Cannon wrote, 'had learned the trick of maintaining stability.'

The key is that among the many things regulated in this homeostatic system - along with blood pressure and blood sugar, body temperature, respiration etc - is the amount of fat we carry. From this biological or homeostatic perspective, lean people are not those who have the willpower to exercise more and eat less. They are people whose bodies are programmed to send the calories they consume to the muscles to be burned rather than to the fat tissue to be stored - the Lance Armstrongs of the world. The rest of us tend to go the other way, shunting off calories to fat tissue, where they accumulate to excess. This shunting of calories toward fat cells to be stored or toward the muscles to be burned is a phenomenon known as fuel partitioning.

The job of determining how fuels (glucose and fatty acids) will be used, whether we will store them as fat or burn them for energy, is carried out primarily by the hormone insulin in concert with an enzyme known technically as lipoprotein lipase - LPL, for short. (Sex hormones also interact with LPL, which is why men and women fatten differently.)

In the Eighties, biochemists and physiologists worked out how LPL responds to exercise. They found that during a workout, LPL activity increases in muscle tissue, and so our muscle cells suck up fatty acids to use for fuel. Then, when we're done exercising, LPL activity in the muscle tissue tapers off and LPL activity in our fat tissue spikes, pulling calories into fat cells. This works to return to the fat cells any fat they might have had to surrender - homeostasis, in other words. The more rigorous the exercise, and the more fat lost from our fat tissue, the greater the subsequent increase in LPL activity in the fat cells. Thus, post-workout, we get hungry: our fat tissue is devoting itself to restoring calories as fat, depriving other tissues and organs of the fuel they need and triggering a compensatory impulse to eat. The feeling of hunger is the brain's way of trying to satisfy the demands of the body. Just as sweating makes us thirsty, burning off calories makes us hungry.

This research has never been controversial. It's simply been considered irrelevant by authorities, all too often lean, who have been dead set on blaming fatness on some combination of gluttony, sloth, and perhaps a little genetic predisposition thrown in on the side. But contemplating the means by which we might lose weight without considering the hormonal regulation of fat tissue is like wondering why children grow taller without considering the role of growth hormones. Or, for that matter, like trying to explain the record-breaking triumphs of modern athletes - Olympic sprinter Marion Jones, for instance - and never considering the possibility that steroid hormones (or human growth hormone or insulin) might be involved.

If it's biology, and not a lack of willpower, that explains why exercise fails so many of us as a weight-loss tool, then we can still find reason for optimism. Since insulin is the primary hormone affecting the activity of LPL on our cells, it's not surprising that insulin is the primary regulator of how fat we get. 'Fat is mobilised [from fat tissue] when insulin secretion diminishes,' the American Medical Association Council on Foods and Nutrition explained back in 1974, before this fact, too, was deemed irrelevant to the question of why we gain weight or the means to lose it. Because insulin determines fat accumulation, it's quite possible that we get fat not because we eat too much or exercise too little, but because we secrete too much insulin or because our insulin levels remain elevated far longer than might be ideal.

To be sure, this is the same logic that leads to other unconventional ideas. As it turns out, it's carbohydrates - particularly easily digestible carbohydrates and sugars - that primarily stimulate insulin secretion. 'Carbohydrates is driving insulin is driving fat,' as George Cahill Jr, a retired Harvard professor of medicine and expert on insulin, recently phrased it for me. So maybe if we eat fewer carbohydrates - in particular the easily digestible simple carbohydrates and sugars - we might lose considerable fat or at least not gain any more, whether we exercise or not.

This would explain the slew of recent clinical trials demonstrating that dieters who restrict carbohydrates but not calories invariably lose more weight than dieters who restrict calories but not necessarily carbohydrates. Put simply, it's quite possible that the foods - potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, pastries, sweets, fizzy drinks and beer - that our parents always thought were fattening (back when the medical specialists treating obesity believed that exercise made us hungry) really are fattening. And so if we avoid these foods specifically, we may find our weights more in line with our desires.

As for those people who insist that exercise has been the key to their weight-loss programmes, the one thing we'd have to wonder is whether they changed their diets as well. Rare is the person who decides the time has come to lose weight and doesn't also decide perhaps it's time to eat fewer sweets, drink less beer, switch to diet drinks, and maybe curtail the kind of carb-rich snacks - the potato chips and the candy bars - that might be singularly responsible for driving up their insulin and so their fat.

For the rest of us, it may be time to take a scientific or biological view of our excesses rather than a biblical one. The benefits of exercise include the joys of virtuousness. I worked out today, therefore I can eat fattening foods to my heart's content. But maybe the causality is reversed here, too. Maybe it's because we eat foods that fatten us that the workout becomes a necessity, the best we can do in the battle against our own fat tissue.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Umming and arring over Green stuff.

I have been thinking about rejoining the Greens. However, I read this article by Bjorn Lomborg, the well-known Danish "sceptical environmentalist" and my doubts return. It could well be the case that humanity has passed the point of no return, but if we haven't...?? Perhaps the onset of global warming is to green thought what the collapse of the global capitalism is to socialist thought. It can happen, and perhaps it will, but is it inevitable? What if it doesn't happen?

I procrastinate. I shop at supermarkets, fly aeroplanes and eat meat. I don't want to be a fraud and a hypocrite in the politics I advocate. I wish I had proper answers to all this. Anyway, here's BL's piece..

Sucked dry: While we're misled on the effects of climate change, costly plans to cut emissions are hampering cheaper, effective solutions to problems we face now
Bjorn Lomborg, The Guardian,Wednesday October 17 2007

Nets and medication would have a bigger, faster impact on malaria than implementing the Kyoto protocol for the rest of this century.

We hear a lot from people who argue that we are heading for catastrophe. We also hear from those who maintain climate change is a hoax. Neither of these extremes is right. The Earth is warming, and we are causing it, but that is not the whole story. Predictions of impending disaster don't stack up.

We have become fixated on solving climate change through cuts in carbon emissions and, as a result, we are losing sight of the real problem, ignoring more effective solutions.

The climate models show that the Kyoto protocol would have postponed the effects of global warming by seven days by the end of the century. Even if the US and Australia had signed on and everyone stuck to Kyoto for this entire century, we would postpone the effects of global warming by only five years.

Although there are no certain predictions of climate change's effects, I believe it is best to employ the most widely accepted estimates - those created by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC finds that ocean levels will rise between 0.5ft and 2ft over this century, with the best expectation being about 1ft. That's similar to what the world experienced in the last 150 years.

A 1ft rise in sea level isn't a catastrophe, though it will pose a problem, particularly for small island nations. But very little land was lost when sea levels rose last century, and it costs relatively little to protect the land from rising tides. We can drain wetlands, build levees and divert waterways.

Some individuals and environmental organisations scoff that the IPCC has severely underestimated the melting of glaciers, especially in Greenland. But delegations tend to fly first to the Kangerlussuaq glacier, then change planes to fly to the fastest-moving glacier, Ilulissat, where they declare that they see climate change unfolding before their eyes. They don't stay in Kangerlussuaq, where the glacier is growing, and they don't mention that temperatures in Greenland were higher in 1941 than today.

There are other ways we only hear one side of the story. We are told climate change will cause more heatwaves and therefore more heat-related deaths. That is true. But rising temperatures will also reduce the number of cold spells. This is important because the cold is a much bigger killer than the heat. Globally, it's estimated that by 2050, global warming will cause almost 400,000 more heat-related deaths each year, but 1.8 million fewer people will die from cold.

Drastic cuts

The Kyoto protocol, with its drastic emissions cuts, is not a sensible way to stop people from dying in future heatwaves. If the US and Australia had committed to the pact, it would have set us all back by $180bn each year. At a much lower cost, urban designers and politicians could lower temperatures more effectively by planting trees, adding water features and reducing the amount of asphalt in at-risk cities. Estimates show that this could reduce the peak temperatures in cities by more than 10C.

We also hear a lot about how global warming will increase infectious diseases. It is true that higher temperatures will probably cause about 3% more malaria by the end of the century. But, according to scientific models, implementing the Kyoto protocol for the rest of this century would reduce the malaria risk by just 0.2%.

On the other hand, we could spend $3bn annually - 2% of the protocol's cost - on mosquito nets and medication and cut malaria incidence almost in half within a decade. For every dollar we spend saving one person through climate policies, we could save 36,000 through direct intervention.

Since awareness of global warming started rising, it seems nearly every "extreme weather event" has been blamed on the changing climate. Flooding is probably weakly related to global warming. We should expect more precipitation, but increasing rain does not necessarily increase flooding. Rises happen mostly during autumn when there is generally a much lower flow and little risk of flooding, and rarely in spring, with high flows.

Using the Kyoto protocol, at best we can postpone warming - and flood damage - by five years by the end of the century.

We have other options. We could limit or reduce people and wealth on floodplains, although this would be politically hard. We could inform people better about flood risks, cancel public subsidies to settlements in floodplains, have more stringent public planning, use levees more sparingly, and allow some floodplains to provide buffers for the remaining areas. We could return some areas back to wetlands, which would both decrease flooding and improve environmental quality.

For every pound of UK flood damage we would save through climate change policies, the same resources spent on direct flood policies could save £1,300. If we care about the future victims of flooding, shouldn't we choose to use flood policies first?

Wherever you look, the conclusion is the same: reducing carbon emissions is not the best way to help the world. We do need to fix global warming in the long run. But I'm frustrated at our blinkered focus on policies that won't achieve it.

I think we need to find a smarter way than spending enormous sums of money doing very little good for the planet a hundred years from now.

Focusing resources

The first step is to start focusing our resources on making carbon emissions cuts much easier. The typical cost of cutting a tonne of CO2 is about $20. Yet, according to a wealth of scientific literature, the damage from a tonne of carbon in the atmosphere is about $2. We need to reduce the cost of cutting emissions from $20 a tonne to, say, $2.

The way to achieve this is to dramatically increase spending on research and development of low-carbon energy. Ideally, every nation should commit to spending 0.05% of its gross domestic production exploring non-carbon-emitting energy technologies - be they wind, wave or solar power - or capturing CO2 emissions from power plants. This spending could add up to about $25bn a year, but it would still be seven times cheaper than the Kyoto protocol, yet increase global research and development tenfold. All nations would be involved, but the richer ones would pay the larger share.

Climate change is not the only challenge of the 21st century, and for many other global problems we have low-cost, durable solutions. I formed the Copenhagen Consensus in 2004 so some of the world's top economists could come together to ask not only where we can do good but at what cost, and to rank the best things for the world to do first. The top priorities are dealing with infectious diseases, malnutrition, agricultural research, and first-world access to third-word agriculture. For less than a fifth of Kyoto's price tag, we could tackle all these issues.

Obviously, we should also work on a long-term solution to climate change. If we invest in research and development, we'll do some real good in the long run, rather than just making ourselves feel good today. But embracing the best response to global warming is difficult when sensible dialogue is shut out. So first, we need to cool our debate.

Bjorn Lomborg, an adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School, is the author of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, published by Marshall Cavendish/Cyan (£19.99). To order a copy for £18.99 with free UK p&p go to or call 0870 836 0875

The English Radical Tradition: The Levellers

"None comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him."- Richard Rumbold, Leveller.

I should not be amazed any more, but it still surprises me so many radical people in England (and elsewhere in the West, for that matter) seem to relive the Bolshevik daydream when it comes to considering political change. It is ridiculous when you consider England (and every other Western country, if you are prepared to look) has its own radical political traditions which it can draw upon. We have the whole resistance to the post-1066 "Norman Yoke"; the 1381 Peasants Revolt; the Levellers in the English Civil War; Tom Paine; the Chartists; the mutualist and co-operative movements. Even with the events of 1917-18, when English Radicalism (and its Scots and Welsh counterparts) was swept under the carpet by both Labour and the Leninists, there must be hope that, with both of these political traditions' political bankruptcy increasingly apparent, almost a century after they achieved their hegemony over "the Left", people will rediscover their radical traditions and embrace them.

With that in mind, it's great to see that people are beginning to see the relevance of the Levellers and the 1647 Putney Debates. Labour-loyalist intellectual Tristram Hunt tries to pin the Levellers and their ideas to Labour's flag in the article below, but hopefully people will see through that!

The Putney Debates, 1647

A jewel of democracy: Last year we asked readers to nominate the neglected event in Britain's radical past that best deserves a proper monument. You chose the Putney debates of 1647, where ordinary people established the principle of votes for all. At last, its place in history will be celebrated - at St Mary's parish church, starting tonight
Tristram Hunt, The Guardian, Friday October 26, 2007

From this evening, British democracy has a new HQ. Modestly placed part way between the Palace of Westminster and the Magna Carta memorial at Runnymede, Putney parish church is now a living monument to the story of English liberty. And it is all thanks to Guardian readers. In summer 2006, G2 ran a competition to unearth Britain's radical past. We argued that despite major advances over the past 10 years in opening up popular understandings of "heritage", the radical inheritance was still not nearly as well represented as it could and should be.

For the most part, it was the cathedrals and castles that continued to dominate the national memory. The stories, monuments and myths that traditionally linked progressive people with their heroic past had steadily retreated from public consciousness. As Nick Mansfield of the People's History Museum, Manchester, put it, "In the past, conservation planners and architectural historians have concentrated on protecting buildings of artistic value or those associated with 'great men' and their achievements. Sites associated with the labour movement or the history of working people have been largely overlooked." What we wanted to do was tell another story of Britishness and, in the process, make sure we preserve and popularise our inspiring radical history.

You responded in your thousands, highlighting the forgotten landmarks of the progressive past: from Bodmin parish church in Cornwall - scene of the 1549 Prayer Book rebellion - to Discovery House in east London with its connections to the Poplar rate dispute of 1921; from Queen's Square, Bristol - the setting for the reformist riots of 1831 - to Orgreave coking plant in Yorkshire and its symbolic role in the 1984-85 miners' strike.

There could only be one winner, but since the launch of the competition radical heritage has come alive. The People's History Museum and Monmouth Shire Hall, venue for the show trials of Chartists following the failed 1839 Newport risings, have both received substantial grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund (of which I am a trustee) to interpret and explain their collections. In Manchester city centre, plans are under way for a proper commemoration of the 1819 Peterloo massacre. And in London, discussions are well advanced for a liberty trail across the capital to chart the streets, institutions and buildings that marked some of the milestones towards modern democracy. But the jewel in the crown is Putney, in south-west London, where support from the Guardian, Lady Antonia Fraser, the Heritage Lottery Fund and numerous kind donors has funded a new exhibition centre.

Why Putney? Because Guardian readers were adamant that this delicate little church, situated on the edge of the Thames amid all the vulgar bustle of wealthy south-west London, retains an unrivalled foothold in the story of Britain. The debates that began at St Mary's church on October 28 1647 pioneered the liberal, democratic settlement: a written constitution, universal suffrage, freedom of conscience and equality before the law. "From its first ascendancy here at St Mary's, there may be traced the acceptance - centuries later in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and now in two-thirds of the nations of the world - of the idea that government requires the consent of freely and fairly elected representatives of all adult citizens, irrespective of class or caste or status or wealth," in the words of Geoffrey Robertson's new introduction to the Putney debates.

By summer 1647, the Roundheads were winning the English civil war. At Marston Moor and Naseby, Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army had crushed the Cavaliers and King Charles I himself was now in custody. But among the victorious soldiers there was a gnawing fear that parliament and the army generals (or "grandees") were preparing to sell them out. Some MPs, fearing the religious militancy of the army and keen for a settlement with the king, wanted to cut soldiers' pay, disband regiments, refuse indemnity for war damage and pack them off to Ireland. Most loathsome of all, they also looked set to betray the religious and political ideals the New Model Army had spent the previous five years fighting for. "We were not a mere mercenary army hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth ... to the defence of the people's just right and liberties," the soldiers complained.

Their grievances were taken up by Leveller agitators within the army rank and file. The Levellers ("who declared that all degrees of men should be levelled, and an equality should be established", according to critics) put forward a postwar manifesto entitled the Agreement of the People. This was a response to "The heads of the proposals", which the grandees had submitted to the king - a highly conservative document that did little to challenge the existing power structures. By contrast, the Agreement of the People was a purposively radical text proposing a constitutional settlement that would be the envy of many post-conflict nations today. It urged religious toleration ("The ways of God's worship are not at all entrusted by us to any human power"); a general amnesty and an end to conscription; a system of laws that must be "no respecter of persons but apply equally to everyone: there must be no discrimination on grounds of tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth or place"; regular, two-yearly parliaments and an equal distribution of MPs' seats by number of inhabitants. At its heart was a profound belief in human liberty and a conviction that politicians were as dangerous as princes when it came to undermining personal freedom. It was the people who were sovereign.

With Oliver Cromwell in the chair, the general council of the New Model Army came together at Putney church, in October 1647, to argue the case for a transparent, democratic state free from the taint of parliamentary or courtly corruption. It proved to be one of the greatest intellectual encounters in western political thought. What was first of all remarkable was the active involvement of rank and file soldiery. And it is thanks to the shorthand notes of the army secretary, William Clarke, that 360 years on we get to hear their political theory. "Never again, even up to today, have private soldiers been allowed to question their officers," as one Guardian reader remarked during the competition.

On the second day of the debates, after a good five-hour prayer session, the soldiers focused on the question of the franchise. Who had the right to vote? For the Levellers, the answer was clear: all those who placed themselves under government should have the right to elect it. The vote was a natural right, irrespective of property or position. "I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he," in the celebrated words of Colonel Rainsborough, "and therefore ... every man that is to live under a government ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under."

The wealthy, socially conservative grandees were horrified by this spectre of egalitarian democracy. To their minds, it presaged anarchy and corruption with wealthy politicians able to buy up the votes of the uneducated, dependent masses. Instead, Cromwell's son-in-law, Henry Ireton, proposed that the franchise be limited to those with a "fixed local interest", that is, the independent, propertied sort. For Rainsborough, such a solution was a wretched betrayal of the civil war sacrifice. "I would fain know what we have fought for: for our laws and liberties? (Yet) this is the old law that enslaves the people of England - that they should be bound by laws in which they have no voice at all!" In the end, they reached a compromise that the vote should be granted to all adult males - excluding servants, apprentices, foreigners, beggars and, obviously, women.

The debates then went on to discuss how to deal with the problem of Charles I. And it was during those chilly autumn days, in the pews of Putney, that the mood hardened against that "man of blood" King Charles and a deadly momentum developed to put him on trial for high treason. The road to the English republic - that epic moment in these islands' history - flowed downstream from Putney to parliament.

Given such subversive sentiments, it was unsurprising that Clarke's shorthand manuscript (subscribed into long hand after the Restoration) was kept hidden. Many of the ideas expressed at Putney - liberty of conscience; a government dependent upon the sovereign will of the people; equality before the law - would, via the ministrations of John Locke, make their way into American political thought and the US constitution. But in Britain these philosophies remained buried late into the 19th century until the Clarke Papers were finally unearthed in Worcester College, Oxford, by the historian CH Firth. They then received popular notoriety thanks to ASP Woodhouse's 1938 work, Puritanism and Liberty, which implicitly conjoined the struggle against fascism with Rainsborough's cry of liberty.

Today, the debates at Putney speak to our modern politics with an equally powerful voice. For the ideal of democracy and liberty the Levellers proposed seems a horribly long way off from our deracinated political system with its party hierarchies, executive arrogance and parliamentary pomposity. Not to mention our murky system of peerages. Their notion of the political life would appear far closer to the extra-parliamentary activities of pressure groups, activists and campaigners than the cosy world of three-party politics. As Gordon Brown edges closer towards a written constitution and a new Bill of Rights, the debates of 1647 might also serve as something of an inspiration. What the Levellers posited nearly 400 years ago was precisely the kind of secular constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience and speech alongside a sovereign parliament which many regard today as much needed political safeguards.

But the Levellers were not simply secular democrats in prototype: the Putney debates were more a mass prayer meeting than constitutional symposium. Every day the soldiers sought God's guidance in their search for a political solution to the civil war and a post-monarchical settlement. While the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins might find it uncomfortable, the story of British democracy is intimately bound up with the theology of Protestant Christianity. Yet Putney was also a gathering of soldiers. With the British army seeming once more to be led by evangelical Christians (with the chief of the general staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, making no secret of how religion informs his leadership) unafraid to make their spiritual beliefs dictate questions of public policy, it might be pertinent for our defence establishment to look back upon the debates as both an inspiration and a warning.

More importantly, as the government searches for histories and narratives to bind Britain's increasingly disparate communities together, the story of democracy is as good a one as any. What the Putney debates highlight is this nation's extraordinary role in the development of participatory democracy. In our diffident relativism we tend to shy away from it, but from the Magna Carta onwards, we have played a pioneering role in the emergence of equality before the law, universal suffrage, an independent judiciary and freedom of speech. The struggle for these rights is precisely the history we should be teaching our schoolchildren and new migrants.

At Putney, we have made a start. The Guardian's money has helped to fund a small but permanent exhibition centre with digital copies of the Debate transcripts, explanations of the civil wars and the context of 17th-century Putney, and a historical commentary on the meaning and legacy of 1647. In addition, this week the church is hosting a series of events - from plays to debates to re-enactments - to involve as many new audiences as possible in the story of Putney. The problem is that these exhibitions are operating in a vacuum: only one (fee-paying) school in the area is teaching the civil war in the history AS/A-Level syllabus. As government initiatives eat into the school day with anodyne citizenship lessons, the one part of our history that teaches the fundamentals of modern citizenship - democracy, toleration, quality - is being quietly abandoned. Can you for one moment imagine French schools not teaching the 1789 Revolution or American high-schools omitting the Wars of Independence?

So the battle for radical restoration goes on. More landmarks need to be preserved and opened up to the public. We need to free our radical heritage from the crusty, self-contented ghettoes to which it has succumbed and make the point that this is our history. At the same time, we must guard against the philistines intent on dismantling our progressive inheritance - and few are currently quite so brazen in this regard as the Labour councillors (Labour councillors!) of Waltham Forest in London who are trying to flog off the superb William Morris gallery. At least south of the Thames there is now a proper memorial and explanation of one of the great radical moments of our past, suitably housed in the Reverend Giles Fraser's progressively ecumenical church. And since you helped to choose it, you should now go and visit it.

From this evening, Putney church will be hosting a series of events to mark the 360th anniversary of the Putney debates. Visit for more information. A new edition of the Putney Debates and surrounding texts, with an introduction by Geoffrey Robertson QC, has been published by Verso, priced £7.99.

Sleep and "Semi-Somnia"

That'll teach her to become addicted to my blog...

I saw this in The Daily Mail while at work. Working nights I know all about sleep problems. I also know more than one acquaintance outside of work who has suffered from sleep ailments of one sort of another. This is for them!

Are you one of the millions of Britons suffering from 'semi-somnia'?
Moira Petty, Daily Mail, October 23rd 2007

The buzz of the alarm clock forces you out of bed, blearyeyed and anything but refreshed.

You snap at your partner, lose patience with the children and struggle into work with all the dynamism of a slug.

About the only thing that keeps you going through the day are sugary snacks.

Back home, even when the evening's tasks have been completed, there are 101 things to do — e-mails to check, a television programme you want to stay up for, preparation for the next day.

Millions of Britons are suffering from 'semi-somnia' - chronic tiredness caused by our hectic 24-hour lifestyle

You finally fling yourself exhausted into bed, mind racing, and wonder why you can't get to sleep.

Sounds familiar? You, like another 30 million Britons, could be suffering from semi-somnia, a term coined by leading sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley to describe persistent low-grade exhaustion due to poor sleep.

"If you put 100 people in a room and asked how many of them felt really good, energetic and full of vitality, few would raise their hands," he says.

In a report, commissioned by Horlicks, to be published next week - revealed exclusively in Good Health today - Dr Stanley reviewed 30 years of academic sleep research and discovered that huge numbers of people complain of feeling chronically tired all the time - "semi-somnia".

But because these people did not have "proper" insomnia or other serious sleep disorders, they were largely ignored by healthcare professionals.

The problem is caused by a combination of lack of sleep and poor quality sleep, and is the result of living in a culture with competing demands on our time.

"These days, we don't see sleep as an end in itself, but as a disposable thing which gets compressed," says Dr Stanley.

"As a result, we trim time off the hours of sleep we get, and when we do sleep, we sleep fitfully because our minds are buzzing."

So how is semi-somnia different from insomnia?

It's like comparing someone who eats only junk food to someone whose diet is half junk food, half nutritious food.

The symptoms of insomnia include taking longer than 30 minutes to get to sleep, and frequently waking in the night or early in the morning.

Chronic insomnia occurs most nights for more than three weeks, but often lasts for months, years or decades.

The semi-somniac may suffer milder versions of the same symptoms; or they may simply not sleep for long enough because they have too much else to do.

It may be a halfway house, but, says Dr Stanley, semi-somnia is a real health concern that should not be ignored. He suggests it is as grave a concern as the obesity crisis.

Yet while there is plenty of public health information about diet, there is almost no attention paid to how vital sleep is to our wellbeing.

The symptoms of insomnia include taking longer than 30 minutes to get to sleep
"We have lost sight of the fact that sleep is vital for good emotional, mental and physical health, and as important as exercise and a good diet," says the former director of sleep studies at the Human Psychopharmocology Research Unit, University of Surrey. (He is now manager of the Clinical Trials & Research Unit at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.)

When we sleep, we experience cycles of deep sleep, in which our body and immune system are repaired, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, in which we dream, lay down memories and deal with stress and emotions.

If we don't sleep for long enough, our body will play catch up next time. It makes up the deep sleep first - although in extreme cases you might never achieve this completely. It may never get the chance to catch up on the REM sleep.

In the short term, poor sleep is linked to irritability, poor performance, lowered immunity and mood swings. In the longer term, it can lead to depression, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Poor sleep has been linked to marital problems and divorce, time off work and unemployment.

One in five car accidents is caused by tiredness - more than the number caused by drink-driving.

In his report, Dr Stanley calculates that this year alone, semi-somnia will cost the National Health Service £290million in treatment.

Intriguingly, Dr Stanley's research suggests that while many of us feel tired (75 per cent of the population admit to waking up exhausted every day), most don't realise, oddly, that it's due to poor sleep - blaming instead factors such as poor diet or lack of exercise.

Semi-somnia is not calculated on the basis of how much sleep you have, but how much you need to be really vibrant the next day – and only you can be the judge of that.

"What is important is not how you rate your sleep, but the daytime consequences of your sleep," he says.

The clue to finding out if you are suffering from semi-somnia is to ask yourself, on a scale of one to 10, how good you feel at 11am and 2pm.

"If you're a five, you're half as good as you should be," says Dr Stanley.

"Even a seven isn't there. If you're suffering from semi-somnia, you have the feeling that you are not on top of the game.

"We live in a tired society, and we have become accepting of being tired. The days when we feel really good are incredibly rare."

So why haven't doctors taken this chronic tiredness more seriously? It seems part of the problem is that we have concentrated exclusively on insomnia.

Dr Stanley, who has previously run a 24-bed laboratory monitoring sleep problems, says that just three per cent of the population suffer from medically recognised sleep disorders.

Apart from chronic insomnia, these include bruxism (clenching or grinding of the teeth), sleep apnoea (excessive snoring in which the sleeper stops breathing many times in the night), and narcolepsy (falling asleep without warning at inappropriate times).

Another problem, he says, is that doctors have so little training in the area.

One study found that half of all doctors receive no training on sleep problems, and the other half get five minutes' training in seven years of study.

"I'd like to know which bits are covered in those five minutes," says Dr Stanley.

"If you go to the doctor and say you're having sleep problems, as likely as not you'll be prescribed drugs for insomnia."

Few GPs even tell patients about the standard sleep hygiene rules devised by Peter Hauri in 1977.

Hauri, who directed the insomnia programme at the famous American Mayo Clinic, is widely regarded as the world's foremost sleep expert.

The rules can be found in self-help books, but even then, they are really aimed at insomniacs.

Among Hauri's rules was the advice that stimulants and alcohol should be avoided in the evening, and that a light snack should be eaten at bedtime to harness the sedative effects of digestive hormones.

Stanley says this is not only an inflexible, one-size-fits-all approach, but it is often unsuited to today's world.

He favours a much less prescriptive approach, with basic principles that the individual adapts to their style and needs.

"The most important thing is that we must actively pursue sleep: we must prepare for it rather as we warm up before exercise," says Dr Stanley.

"We insist that our children 'wind down' before bedtime - and adults need to do the same, physically and mentally.

"But every person's wind down needs to be personal to them, depending on their likes and dislikes."

The first step is to understand the modern barriers to sleep - and to work out which affects you in order to fix your semi-somnia.

Dr Stanley says there are two main problems: our inability to switch off from work and the 24-hour society, and bedtime "buzz".

"We work and play hard, and time has become irrelevant. Sleep is seen as something you snatch when you are finished with everything else.

"We live in a 24-hour society, where you can even do your supermarket shopping in the middle of the night.

"Twenty to 30 years ago, there was no overnight TV or radio, and no all-night clubs, let alone the internet.

"Texting is one of the major problems of teenage sleep. Teenagers are actually woken in the night when they hear the ping announcing they have a message.

"Then there are people who sit up using the internet, thinking: 'I must stay on top and be in control.' But evolution says we should be awake in the day and sleep at night."

For some people, the problem is compounded by an inability to separate work from their home life. "You know the sort," says Dr Stanley.

"They have a BlackBerry and two mobile phones glued to their ears. They can't switch off, and are still checking their messages late at night.

"But in order to fall asleep, you have to be thinking of nothing in particular — but nowadays that's virtually impossible. No wonder so many of us can't sleep."

The other major problem is what he calls "bedtime buzz"; our habit of going to bed with the day's issues - personal, domestic or career - unresolved.

"Don't lie in bed next to your wife discussing the mortgage repayments," says Dr Stanley.

Sometimes this buzz is caused by stress over our inability to sleep.

"The more you worry about not sleeping, the harder it will be."

Dr Stanley admits that many of his techniques are simply common sense - but the key is to do what suits you.

That means that if drinking alcohol or coffee at night doesn't affect your sleep, you can avoid Hauri's strictures against such habits.

"If you have happily been drinking a cup of coffee every night for 40 years and more recently had sleep problems, in all likelihood the coffee is not the culprit," says Dr Stanley.

"People go out to dinner, have a heavy three-course meal and then order a cup of decaffeinated coffee - as if that will make any difference.

"Your body temperature needs to fall before you go to sleep, and it won't if you have taken in all those calories just before bedtime."

Nor does he believe that TV and radio should be banned from the bedroom - even though this goes counter to all the advice usually given about sleep problems.

"If having a television in the bedroom is an excuse to watch for hours more than you would if you were still up, then that is not good. But if it helps you sleep, that's fine.

"It's not the process of getting to sleep that is important, but the destination.

"My message to semi-somniacs is be nice to yourself. Wind down in a way that pleases you. Make it a pleasurable process.

"Sleep is such a good thing to have and as essential - and arguably even more so - as good diet and exercise.

"See sleep as a pleasure. Going to sleep is such bliss. If we forget that, then, as a society we must accept the consequences.

"Remember how good you feel when you've had a really good night's sleep, and think how much better you would work if you always felt like that."

Dr Stanley's report, Making Time For Sleep, will be available on from October 30.

Here are Dr Stanley's 3Rs of getting a good night's sleep:

RESOLVE: The countdown to bed, when you begin the process of putting aside the day's chores and worries. Start by turning off the computer and perhaps the radio and TV, too.

Music might provide a better background for your sleep preparation.

Think about your environment. Can you soundproof it against car alarms or noisy neighbours?

Invest in the thickest curtains or blinds you can find. Just four minutes of sunlight on the retina are enough to make you feel wide awake.

Does your partner disturb you with snoring or restlessness? Consider a bigger bed, or separate bedrooms.

Your evening meal should be three to four hours before bedtime. There's no need to avoid specific food or drink unless they interfere with your sleep.

RELAX: Use a relaxation technique. Some prefer yoga or meditation, but for most people a hot bath with your favourite oils will work.

Perhaps light a scented candle or play classical/light music in the background. Your bedroom needs to be as inviting as you can make it.

The body needs to cool down before you can sleep so make sure the bedroom is well-ventilated and turn off the heating well before you go to bed.

Women are more likely to suffer from semisomnia, partly because hormonal changes cause their temperature to rise.

Do not keep a computer in the bedroom. (Some people are online until they climb into bed.)

A TV or radio is fine if it provides a harmonious background to your bedtime ritual. Take advantage of feeling sleepy and go to bed.

A hot milky drink such as Horlicks works for some people.

It sounds obvious but with so much entertainment on offer, too many of us sit up yawning long after our body has told us it is time to sleep.

RELEASE: Develop techniques to counter "racing brain", when an overactive mind stops you sleeping.

Ideally, you need to be thinking of nothing much and allowing your mind to drift. For some people, playing a familiar, well-loved piece of music may help.

Visualisation techniques can be useful: imagine a scene of great serenity. The textbook example is a deserted, tropical beach at sunset - but an entirely different image might appeal to you.

If you are concerned about things you need to do the next day, write a list on a pad and leave it on the bedside table.

More Shakespeare!

Hello- sorry for the silence, but a combination of life, Facebook and post-General Election-that-never-was Hamlet-style political procrastination has led me to neglect this blog. Hence to plug the gap I'm back to post some other people's stuff I like and you may like too! I saw this in yesterday's Sunday Times "Culture" section.

Bawdy face of the Bard’s London: A long-neglected document started this writer off on his latest piece of literary detective work
Charles Nicholl, The Sunday Times, October 28, 2007

The story begins with a sheet of greyish paper, housed unceremoniously with others in a cardboard box at the National Archives in Kew. Though slightly mouldered at one edge, it is in remarkably good condition after nearly four centuries. It is mostly filled with the handwriting of an unknown Jacobean law clerk, but what makes it special is the rather hurried-looking signature at the bottom: “Willm Shaks”.

The document records Shakespeare’s testimony in a lawsuit at the Court of Requests in Westminster in 1612. Much of it is the usual legalistic cotton wool, but the nub of it, the actual answers to the court’s questions, is purely Shakespeare. It is the only occasion when his spoken words are recorded. This intriguing piece of paper was discovered nearly 100 years ago, but has been strangely neglected as a biographical source. This little window into Shakespeare’s life has not been opened.

The case was a family dispute about money: standard fare at the Court of Requests, which was something like the small-claims courts of today. The defendant was Christopher Mountjoy, described as a “tiremaker”, a maker of the decorative headwear for ladies known as “headtires” or “attires”. The plaintiff, Stephen Belott, had once been Mountjoy’s apprentice and was now his son-in-law. Both were French immigrants but had lived for many years in London. The dispute concerned an unpaid dowry: a goodly sum of £60, which Belott claimed had been promised when he married Mountjoy’s daughter in 1604.

Shakespeare was one of three witnesses called on the first day of the hearings: Monday, May 11, 1612. He tells the court he has known both the disputants “for the space of tenne yeres or there-aboutes” – that is, since about 1602. He remembers the apprentice Belott as a “good and industrious servant”, who “did well and honestly behave himselfe”; he was “a very honest fellowe”. Shakespeare is sure Belott had been promised a dowry – a marriage “porcion” – but he cannot remember the sum mentioned. Nor does he remember “what kinde of household stuffe” had been given to the couple when they married.

And then, amid the general blandness of his statement, there is a hint of something more. He says he had been asked by the girl’s mother, Marie Mountjoy, to “perswade” the apparently reluctant former apprentice to go through with the marriage. This presents him as a kind of marriage counsellor, but another witness implies that Shakespeare’s role went further than this: the couple was “made sure by Mr Shakespeare” and gave “each other’s hand to the hand”. These phrases have a precise significance. They suggest Shakespeare had formally betrothed the couple, performing the simple household ceremony known as “trothplighting” or “handfasting”. There are scenes and stories preserved in these old papers: a message in a bottle.

Shakespeare does not actually say why he was involved in these family affairs chez Mountjoy, but the answer is soon provided by another witness, the Mountjoys’ former maid, Joan Johnson, who refers to “one Mr Shakespeare that laye in the house”. To “lie” in a house meant to be staying there, and she undoubtedly means that Shakespeare was the Mountjoys’ lodger.

This is one of the primary nuggets of information from the Belott-Mountjoy case: it gives us an address for Shakespeare in London. His wife and family were up in Stratford, but for professional reasons (and perhaps others), the “sweet swan of Avon” spent most of his working life in rented accommodation in London. We know of other areas of the city he lived in – Shoreditch, Bishops-gate, Southwark – but this is the only time we have a specific address. The Mountjoys lived on Silver Street, in Cripplegate, close to the northeastern corner of the city walls. How long Shakespeare lodged there is not certain, but he was definitely there in 1604, when the marriage in question took place. He was then 40 years old, a writer, actor and shareholder in the leading troupe of the day, the King’s Men – a man at the peak of his profession.

Silver Street was bombed out in the Blitz and never rebuilt. The old line of it runs partly under and partly alongside a busy road, London Wall, part of the A1211. Pacing it out, I conclude that the closest one can now get to the Mountjoys’ house is underneath the road, in London Wall car park. I am at roughly the right spot, even at the right depth – the preFire stratum is some metres below the current surface – but this is, on the whole, a depressing proximity. An underground car park is unmis-takably an underground car park, whether or not Shakespeare once lived on the site of it.

I am a great believer in physically searching out traces of the past, but here there really is nothing. The house and the street are gone – “melted into air, into thin air” – and it is to that box of old papers in the National Archives that one must turn to reconstruct something of what it was like and of what went on there. Shakespeare’s testimony is only the beginning, a few curt words of reminiscence. From there, the paper chase leads on – other depositions, other documents: tax records, immigrant lists, medical casebooks, probate registers, scribbled marginalia, and the rich, dense sociology of the St Olave’s parish registers, preserved in the Guildhall manuscript library.

Bit by bit, this little corner of Jacobean London emerges: the industrious, quarrelsome, somewhat rackety French family with whom he lodged; the neighbours he knew – the trumpeter Humphrey Fludd, the adulterous mercer Henry Wood, and, most interesting, the brothel-keeper and hack author George Wilkins, who later collaborated with him on Pericles. Wilkins was a dangerous and unpleasant character – his voluminous police record includes brutal acts of violence against prostitutes. On one occasion, he “outrageously beat one Judith Walton, & stamped upon her, so that she was carried home in a chayre”; on another, he was charged with “kicking a woman on the belly which was the greate with childe”. Wilkins’s establishment – nominally a tavern but certainly a brothel – was on Turnmill Street, in the notorious red-light district of Clerkenwell. His wife, Katherine, was nicknamed “Mistress Sweetmeat” – perhaps she served the overpriced cakes and pastries that were associated with brothels. “For a pippin pie that cost in the market fourpence”, warns the pamphleteer Robert Greene, you will pay “at one of the trugging houses 18 pence”.

Wilkins and Shakespeare probably met in 1605, when the newly wed Belotts were actually lodging with Wilkins. In that year, Wilkins, then unknown as a writer, was commissioned by Shakespeare’s company to write a play based on a recent murder case. The result, The Miseries of Enforced Marriage – his best and most biting work, full of the “low-life” he knew so well – played to packed houses. The collaboration on Pericles followed, Wilkins writing the first two acts (and perhaps contributing some expertise to Act IV, which has the only scenes in Shakespeare set in a brothel).

Shakespeare’s connection with this lurid young pimp-playwright is slightly troubling. Was it merely literary opportunism, or were there other services Wilkins offered to a middle-aged man working away from home for months at a stretch? Prostitution was one of the growth industries of Jacobean London; the theatre was another. The two were linked in the minds of moralists, and in topographical fact. The Globe theatre stood among the famous bawdyhouses of Southwark – The Cardinal’s Hat, Holland’s Leaguer and The Castle, the latter on the site of the present-day Southwark pub The Anchor – and the playhouse itself was a place of simmering erotic potential, where “lewd” and “light-tailed” ladies offered “bargaines of incontinency”.

Pursuing these characters, one is prey to the randomness of historical evidence. Whole tracts of the Mountjoys’ life are lost to us, but amid this desert are little oases of actuality. Here is Shakespeare’s landlady in 1597, as recorded in the casebooks of the astrologer Simon Forman: “In Silver Street Mary Mountioy of 30 years lost out of her purse in the street as she went, the 10 of Septembris last between 7 & 8 at night, a gold ring, a hoop ring & a French crown.” In the same entry, we hear of one of the Mountjoys’ maids, Margaret Browne, described as a “tall wench” with a freckled face. It appears this unmarried girl is pregnant; the master of the house might be suspected, as he was later accused of having fathered two bastard children by a serving girl.

In these old pages of semi-legible ink, we start to hear the voices of the past and to feel ourselves back in the narrow lanes of Cripplegate, where the elusive Mr Shakespeare is discreetly lodged above the Mountjoys’ busy workshop, with its wire-mills and twisting-wheels, and its clientele of fashionable and not always very reputable ladies, and the sound of foreign voices floating up into the room where he writes.

The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street, by Charles Nicholl, is published by Penguin on November 8 at £20